Sunday, 1 April 2012

Days 210 and 211: Yangtze River Cruise Days 1 and 2

The Three Gorges Dam, number 21 on my Wonder list, dams and takes its energy from the Yangtze River. Effectively completed in 2008, it raised the upstream water level by up to an astonishing 180 metres, creating a 600 kilometre long river reservoir and submerging 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1300 villages: in total 1.3 million people had to be resettled prior to its completion. It is down this section of river I find myself, on a supposed "luxury" boat cruise, floating to my destination of the Dam.

Burness and I arrived in the city of Chongqing yesterday, and immediately found ourselves in a rage. We had booked the cruise through our hostel in Chengdu, and had opted for the luxury one as there was to be an English-speaking tour guide, free food, and all our transport dealt with. Also heavily implied was that we'd be given a tour of Chongqing. But upon arriving there at a travel agency without anyone who spoke English I was handed a phone with a mystery man on the line telling me to be back at the travel agents for 7pm boat boarding. It was 11am - why on earth had we got up at 6am just to have to wait around for a day? We would far, far rather have had a lie-in and arrived in Chongqing at a more sensible hour. Like petulant brats, we huffed, and left the travel agents in indignation... and had quite a pleasant day in the end.

Aesthetically, I would describe Chongqing as a city of "astonishingly ruined potential". Situated on a wide bend of the Yangtze where the Jialing river joins, it is a hilly city spread across the riversides, the peaks and the contours. Unfortunately, it was utterly flattened during the Japanese occupation, when it was briefly the capital of China. Subsequent rebuilding has... lacked a little finesse, you might say. Ongoing construction for this city of five million is rampant, but there are already anonymous tower blocks as far as the eye can see in a quite remarkably brutal vista. Imagine Paris turned Communist, or Rio converted entirely into identikit apartment blocks, and you might get an idea.

That isn't to say that Chongqing doesn't have its moments, or is without its charm. Its charm was evident from the masses of people sitting outside playing mah-jong and card games along the winding streets (the irregular topology ensures the usual grid structure favoured by modern cites isn't really practical), and the smiles and hellos of locals as we passed by. And look past the blocky buildings and tangle of motorways, and there are plenty of attractive, or at least, quirky moments, such as the cluster of faux-traditional buildings clinging to a cliffside, a neon version of Big Ben, the modern facade of the Three Gorges Museum, or the Temple of Heaven-esque Great Hall.

After a decent barbecue/noodle lunch at a restaurant overlooking the river, the Three Gorges Museum was our first stop. For my Wonder's sake, I'd hoped it would focus on the Three Gorges Dam, but instead it more understandably focussed on the culture and history of the Three Gorges area. And not without a liberal dose of propaganda. It would be fair to say that the Dam and its subsequent raising of the water level and flooding of numerous sites has destroyed much of the culture and history of the Three Gorges area - but that appears to not be quite the official spin on it:

"The long evolution, the magnificent scenery, the lofty spirit, the brilliant culture, the Three Gorge Project, the resettlement of a million of migrants and the emergent protection of historical relics in the Three Gorges area..."

Amazing. This was later followed up by claiming the resettlement of over a million "embodies and cultivates the Three Gorges migrants' dignity of sacrificing individual interest for national benefit." The official Chinese line seems to be to turn the negative aspects of the Three Gorges Dam into a positive. The flooding of historical relics is actually protection - because some was saved. Throwing a load of people off their land is actually a wonderful example of individual sacrifice for the common good. The Three Gorges Dam has some enormous benefits, but come on China, don't pretend it's all a happy, rosy story.

But let's not get political. The museum lost its interest a little after the Three Gorges section, mainly because much of the rest lacked English caption, so myself and Burness attempted to walk to the supposedly close Pipa Park. This took considerably longer than expected due to Chongqing's confusing twisting roads, but finally we arrived, and were able to enjoy some find views of endless towers blocks.

We were however quite tired by this point and quite fancied a beer, so headed back to the square by the Great Hall, again taking considerably longer than expected. It was worth it though, because despite the beer being a typically Chinese 3.1% (Chinese beer is pathetically weak), the surroundings were lovely, the atmosphere friendly, and we played cards for an hour or two in the pleasant sunlight.

Things all got a little stressful then. We needed to get a taxi back to the travel agents, but after half an hour and hundreds of in-use taxis passing, were out of luck. We got back late after finally commandeering one, but then the port authorities wouldn't allow us in as they didn't have our details. This was eventually resolved, and we gazed upon an absolutely gorgeous cruiseliner... which we then proceeded to walk right past until we got to our actual boat, the Princess Elaine. It kind of reminded us of a rig. As you might know, both Burness and I used to work on rigs - it was a novelty, I suppose, having to pay to spend some time on one.

But it wasn't so bad. Some rigs are pretty decent; add in some booze and some travelling down a river and it becomes quite pleasurable. The couple next door certainly appeared to agree. After being woken last night by their amorous bangings, and again disturbed before lunch today by some wholly indiscreet moanings, I could stand no more, so requested to reception we switch rooms. The receptionist girl came to our room, heard the noise, and gasped "Oh my God." To my delight, she couldn't have given me a more apt room.

Making the situation a little more awkward, the amorous couple - an American guy and a Chinese girl - noticed us moving rooms. On board, there are something like fifty Chinese, and just eight foreigners (if, in this case, we include the Chinese girl as a token foreigner). This means that all mealtimes have the foreigners at a special "foreigner table", removed from the main mass of Chinese, and so all our meals must be spent together round a table of eight. The first meal together was, just a little, awkward.

So the start to the cruise was less than auspicious. Our first outing, today, didn't make things much better. It was to Fengdu, the "Ghost City", which sounds great but was a little disappointing. Being part of a large Chinese tour group didn't help much. Though our guide spoke excellent English, she obviously had to focus on the Chinese, so much of our time was spent shuffling about slowly listening to Chinese explanations. We broke off from the group a little later and did things at our own pace. Fengdu is supposed to be an ancient passage between the mortal world and hell, or something like that, and since the flooding the actual city has been relocated to a series of modern tower blocks on the other side of the river. What is left is a handful of reconstructed temples with some, frankly, weird statues.

The statues are quite fun, but Fengdu doesn't live up to its monicker as a Ghost City. I guess the real Ghost City is underwater, what we have now is a fairly tacky tourist attraction.

Subsequent to that morning excursion, we were left to our own devices as the boat drifted on down the river, and this is where the cruise finally became pleasurable. No herding, no schedules, no banging couples, just sitting on the top deck watching increasingly attractive scenery go by. So far we haven't entered the real Three Gorges area, it's just build up, with plenty of industrial sites and blocky clusters peppering the hilly riverbanks. Pleasant, though not world-class. But with some beers and the sunshine, a hint of luxury has ebbed in.

The evening's entertainment came in the form of a Chinese variety performance, put on by the staff. The Chinese people loved it. Burness, who by now was pretty drunk, loved it. I was mostly bewildered. It was certainly a varied show. Three volunteers swung a ball between their legs to knock another ball along the ground; a girl sung with massive reverb; three men dressed a chefs did a dance; a five-minute exposition led to a complex version of musical chairs involving men having their belts removed and the winner - I think - performing a song. The finale was some crazy techno all of a sudden coming on and some strobe lighting, and the crowd going wild and dancing. For about ninety seconds, then it all abruptly ended.

That's the cruise so far. Tomorrow, I hope, we get first glimpse of the Three Gorges Dam, at night, perhaps passing through the locks, and the day after we get a proper tour. Other than that, it's some faux-luxury and scenic enjoyment with some amusingly boisterous Chinese and an amorous couple arduously banging away.

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